Media: This Tory will run and run

Tory HQ is being run like a newsroom. But can anyone turn William Hague into good news?
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It's 9am and the morning conference is well underway. The editor is praising some executives, chastising others, while the news editor prepares to announce the day's story list. Beyond the editor's office, the team of reporters waits anxiously for their tasks, tapping eagerly at their computers to check the PA wires. The only thing missing is a sadistic, extremely public rollicking of a junior reporter who misspelled the proprietor's name.

Welcome to Conservative Central Office, 1999. None of the characters is fictitious and any resemblance to real newspapers, living or dead, is entirely intentional.

Proving that six months is an awfully long time in politics, the Smith Square press office today is a buzz of activity, palpably different from its previous existence at the turn of the year. Back then, the mood was one of gloom. William Hague was as popular as the ebola virus and the party's poll ratings had discovered zero gravity. Worse still, after a few ill-advised photo-opportunities of the great leader's now-legendary baseball cap, not to mention William and Ffion sipping milk from the same Notting Hill coconut, it was the "kids" at Central Office who were being blamed by MPs for the recurring PR disasters.

The first significant appointment was that of Nick Wood, at 48 definitely not a kid but a former Times staffer with 15 years' experience on national newspapers, initially as liaison officer for the Parliamentary Lobby in the House of Commons. With relations with the Press Gallery at best indifferent, the move was sorely needed.

In April, following rumours that the Mail on Sunday's editor Jonathan Holborrow was set to take over the press operation, Mr Hague made a bolder appointment. Amanda Platell, 41, the Australian former executive editor of the Sunday Express, acting editor of the Sunday Mirror and managing director of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, was drafted in at pounds 100,000 plus salary as Head of News and Media.

At first, the Platell appointment appeared misguided. She slipped up with Mr Hague's non-launch re-launch as a "regular guy" in short sleeves and then got Ffion to wear a very sorry Sari. There was then the spectacular PR disaster of Peter Lilley's "End of Thatcherism" speech, which spun the spinners off the track by threatening a split midway through the local elections campaign.

However, June's highly successful European elections campaign to Save the Pound finally saw the Smith Square ship turned around. As tacky as it may have appeared to some, a stunt to persuade Ffion to wear a pounds 2,000 diamond pound-sign necklace on the eve of the poll meant that the photo, and the Eurosceptic message, appeared in nearly every newspaper. With a resounding victory over Labour, its first defeat nationally under Tony Blair, morale was boosted at Central Office.

In June, Andrew Scadding, the former producer of BBC's On the Record and a senior TV journalist for more than 10 years, was hired to bring much-needed broadcasting expertise.

Best of all, however, was the Government's announcement at the beginning of the summer that it was to increase significantly the administrative funding to opposition parties. In one of the most generous and altruistic acts in modern politics, Margaret Beckett, the leader of the House, announced that the Tories would get an extra pounds 400,000 a year in so-called "Short Money". The staff at Central Office could hardly believe their luck and, backed by cash from donors, proceeded to strengthen the "War Room" of researchers and press officers.

Press officers with real media experience have been drafted in to instil the demands of deadlines, turn-around times and that magical, strangely- elusive discipline - plain, old-fashioned news sense. Most important of all, with a virtual doubling of the numbers of War Room staff to 50, Wood and Platell are now on their way to achieving their vision of a newsroom- style press office.

At the 9am meeting every day, a morning conference approach is taken, with Platell taking on the role of editor, Wood her number two and Scadding the news editor. Unlike most newspapers, though, the very hands-on proprietor - William Hague - is present almost every time. The meeting discusses the previous day's triumphs or disasters and looks ahead to the day's agenda by following a news list drawn up by Scadding.

Press officers then become "reporters", each charged with a "story" or policy announcement to push or a reaction to put out. The challenge is to get the story in as many newspapers as possible, and, best of all, to "get the splash" or main front-page story. "At the end of the day, it's not much good getting four pars on page 10 when you can hopefully get a page lead on the front or page two," a senior source says.

The new approach was highlighted graphically when the passports crisis story broke last month. Turning the Government's discomfort to its advantage, the press office reacted quickly, putting out figures on delays and back- up research. Most important of all, Ann Widdecombe popped up amid the queues of disgruntled punters to give the perfect photo-op and her image appeared in most national newspapers the following day.

The office is modelled on a newsroom, with Scadding a desk-bound anchor scanning the wires and reporters split up into teams of Home, Foreign and Business (or Treasury). Each team of specialists reports to their respective Shadow Cabinet minister for quotes and direction. Unlike a real newspaper, the reporters have the luxury of being backed up by a 30-strong team of researchers (increased by 10 thanks to the Short Money) headed by Rick Nye - the younger half-brother, if political opponent, of Sue Nye, Gordon Brown's personal assistant. Most of the researchers have specific "back up" duties for individual Shadow Cabinet ministers, but Nye also has a floating team of rebuttal experts who can be assigned to any task at short notice.

Mike Penning, known as the Tories' equivalent of Charlie Whelan for his regular patrols of the Lobby corridor and bars, also had his role expanded to cover five different Shadow Cabinet members.

The party relies on FT profile and cuttings libraries for its rebuttal operation. Stories are updated throughout the day and press officers are encouraged to use Labour MPs' past quotes against them.

Danny Finkelstein, the Tories' head of policy and Hague's key ideas man, is also on hand to guide and react to stories. Tim Collins, former director of communications at CCO and now MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale and party vice-chairman, is permanently based in the War Room to oversee the press office with political guidance. He also gives it a vital link to the House of Commons.

Sebastian Coe, who is effectively William Hague's Chief of Staff - despite having lost his seat at the last election - serves as a form of managing director, reminding the team of the leader's wishes. George Osborne, the new Tory candidate for Tatton and Hague's speechwriter, consults the Press Office on the leader's speeches. Finkelstein and Nye will tell Platell and Wood the key soundbites in a speech and they may in turn suggest a better turn of phrase. "It's just like an editor saying, well, that's not a bad headline, but here's a better one," the source says.

"There has been no big bang," says one insider. "The operation has evolved and we are now near to getting what we want. Once things are as we like, we should have quicker turn-around times and have the flexibility to be more creative and reactive."

The party is also working on how to improve its reach in the regional press and among local radio and TV stations, aiming to replicate Labour's success in opposition in placing stories.

Yet though the new Tory operation may look and feel like it is playing newspapers, its can never escape its raison d'etre: to win the next election. "At the end of the day, we serve our political masters," says the senior official, with a Mandelsonian rigour that makes one almost nostalgic for the baseball cap and Notting Hill coconuts. "Labour realised that oppositions don't have any power other than the power to influence the media. So do we."